It’s easy to see the negatives but sometimes it takes someone to point out the obvious before we can see the positives.
One of those positives right on our doorstep is that when it comes to the rate of vacant commercial property Hastings punches well above its weight – especially for a town recognised as having the economic challenges associated with seasonal trade.
Just take a look at many comparable town around the country and you’ll find swathes of empty shopfronts. Gap, after gap, after gap in the retail centres of the UK.
Shops that have been empty long term and are becoming dilapidated are not the significant feature of Hastings town centre as they are elsewhere.
Yes – Hastings has a smattering of empties – but in real terms the numbers are low, and most of the longer-term vacant units have stories to tell.
Probate issues, structural problems, long and expensive lease termination clauses – all of these and more are behind some of the town’s older vacancies.
But what’s really positive is the steady churn of new businesses investing in the town centre over the last year or so. Every one of these represents someone with confidence in the Hastings economy. Someone who is prepared to invest time and money in Hastings, and who believes in the town’s economic future.
This confidence isn’t new – and it’s largely the reason why, in 2016, firms in the town centre voted in favour of paying an additional levy on top of their business rates to fund the ‘Business Improvement District’ (BID).
As a result, a new private company was set up – Love Hastings Ltd – with a mandate to invest the £200,000-or-so raised every year into things that enhance the town’s appeal to customers.
The company has effectively taken over the old town centre management role and as such it’s committed to carrying on with long-standing projects such as Christmas lights, summer planting, and the shopwatch and barwatch schemes that help to cut down on crime and anti-social behaviour in the area.
They also employ a town centre ‘business ambassador’ – the new friendly face of the town whose job is to provide a point of contact for shoppers, visitors and businesses alike. As well as being a visible source of information the ambassador also keeps a close eye on the cleaning and maintenance of the town and makes sure work is done by the council and its contractors as quickly as possible and to a suitably high standard.
Reflecting on his first year in post as manager of the BID, John Bownas reels off the roll-call of new names on the high street over the past 12 months or so.
“The steady erosion of traditional shopping patterns is having a big impact on national chains,” explains John, “but this is, I think, providing new opportunities for small retailers to step in and offer something unique.
“That’s why we are seeing businesses opening like WOW at the top of Queen’s Road, with their quirky hand-made mirrors, the nearby See Spray Gallery with its unique collection of modern art, or Sales from the Crypt who have brought new gift ranges to the Queen’s Arcade.
“There’s also more room for services to be offered from high street shops – and businesses like W.K. Fadez [unisex salon], Hastings Tailors, Timpsons, Buddies computer repairs, Sussex Framing Centre, and Power Up phone repairs are all good examples of businesses that have opened recently in the town. Alongside these are a few recruitment agencies – Kare Plus and HE Healthcare, both offering work in personal care, and Bailey’s Recruitment Agency who have moved to a new, larger unit in Robertson Street.
“We’ve also seen a few other existing businesses rebrand or change hands while sticking to the original use of the building. Caspian Sea and Kingfisher II have added to the list of great fish’n’chip shops in the town, and Shish is the new name for great Turkish cuisine on Robertson Street. Meanwhile, The Royal George, Pig’s Palace, Crowley’s, The Drift In Bar, Bat and Bee, and Bar 180 were all fresh names in 2018 for established pubs and bars.
“It’s definitely eating and drinking that accounts for the bulk of the new businesses in town,” added John. “We’ve also seen the opening of 12,000 Postcards, 5 Aces café, and Number 8 restaurant…and it won’t be long before the Castle View Café and Hanushka Café add their names to the list. Oh – and not forgetting the new Magic Corn van that’s made its home in the town centre.
“Home cooks are also catered for though,” John continued. “The Queen’s Road Deli and Oriental Supermarket opposite offer great ingredients that aren’t stocked on normal supermarket shelves – and most recently they’ve been joined by a new speciality Polish food outlet in Cambridge Road – Maya’s Deli. And not forgetting Chef’s Ware on Queen’s Road for all those kitchen essentials.
“Of course, there’s also been investment by some of the bigger high street names – most notable Morrison’s with their big expansion and refit, but also the new Savers store and the move by JD Sports to a larger unit in Priory Meadow.”
John also explained how in 2019, among many other things, the company will be looking to inject more entertainment into the town as well as developing a ‘buskers code’ – and a bid is being put together for Arts Council funding to bring more public art into some previously neglected spaces. Discussions are also underway with craft market organisers to see if a regular arts fair could be organised to showcase the work of local artists.
This is all linked with the need to shift people’s thinking about what a successful high street looks like – and hopefully ties in with the newly announced high street fund that will see the government investing millions into new projects over the coming few years.
And with the ‘digital high street’ becoming ever more of a threat to traditional retailers the Love Hastings website has just been revamped with the aim of ensuring that every business in the BID area – from the largest to the smallest – has a positive and visible presence on the internet.
Right now there are some 500 business units in the BID area – and all of them can be found at www.lovehastings.com along with a comprehensive events calendar and more information about the projects run by Love Hastings.